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 Post subject: RIOULT Dance NY
PostPosted: Thu Jun 26, 2014 11:54 am 

Joined: Wed Jun 30, 2004 11:01 pm
Posts: 443
Location: New Jersey
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

June 19, 2014
Program A: Martha, May, & Me
“Suspension;” “Black Diamond;” “El Penitente; “Views of the Fleeting World”

-- by Jerry Hochman

Any dance company, particularly a modern dance company, that has endured for twenty years must be doing something right. Based on the performance I saw last week, Rioult Dance NY is.

Founded by Pascal Rioult and his wife, Joyce Herring, both former dancers with the Martha Graham Dance Company, the company celebrated its 20th anniversary with two programs last week at the Joyce Theater. I was able to attend one of them, which convinced me that I should have allowed time to see the other. The repertory program was both stimulating and entertaining, and the company's dancers include fabulous technicians and performers. While its current choreography appears more retro than 'cutting edge', that, to me, is not a deficiency. Presenting interesting, creative, and entertaining dances is more important to me than how they're labelled, and that Rioult Dance NY does.

The program, titled 'Martha, May & Me”' had a specific overall purpose: to pay tribute to two of Mr. Rioult's primary choreographic influences, and to correlate these influences with examples from Mr. Rioult's work. I found it fascinating.

May O'Donnell was a dancer and choreographer primarily located in San Francisco and New York during the 1930s through the 1980s. A former dancer with the Martha Graham Company in the late 1930s and again as a guest artist from 1944 to 1952, she created several of the Graham Company’s iconic roles. On her own, she is known to have choreographed some 50 dances between the late 1930s and mid-1980s, and created the May O’Donnell Dance Company in 1974. She died in 2004, at age 97.

Ms. O’Donnell was known for progressive pieces that explored the movement of bodies through time and space, and some commentators have described her work as a precursor to that if Merce Cunningham. I have difficulty, from an audience-entertainment perspective, with much if the Cunningham work I've seen. To me his exploration of bodies moving through time and space may be interesting academically, but have little entertainment value. I write this to indicate my prejudice, and perhaps thereby to add emphasis to my reaction to Ms. O'Donnell's classic "Suspension," which she created in 1943. I thought it was a superb dance, and the Rioult dancers provided an equally superb performance of it.

Choreographed to a composition by Ms. O’Donnell’s husband, Ray Green, “Suspension” certainly explores the movement of bodies through time and space, but it does so in a way that is mesmerizing rather than merely cerebral. Reportedly, “Suspension” was inspired by Ms. O’Donnell’s view of an airplane flying beneath where she was standing on a hilltop. But just as “Jewels” is more than what George Balanchine saw displayed in a Van Cleef & Arpels store window, “Suspension” is more than watching propeller blades on an airplane from above. The dancers in “Suspension” may be bodies moving in space, but they're human bodies, with natural human sensibilities. To me, it’s not simply an amorphous agglomeration of empty vessels.

I suspect that what I’ve just written is anathema to modern dance purists,, but since my viewing background is more in ballet than modern dance, perhaps I see modern dance pieces differently, and to some extent through the prism of what my eyes have been exposed to previously. To me, “Suspension” has a kinship to Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Monotones” in terms of bodies moving through space, but doing so in a way that’s more than just robotic motion; they move with precision, as if ordered by a greater force.

Regardless of what it’s ‘supposed’ to say, “Suspension” is fascinating and entertaining not just as a result of the choreography, but as a result of the performances, and particular the performance of Sara E. Seger, whose movement took place exclusively on top of, to and from, and around two different sized box-shaped platforms. I don’t know whether the role that Ms. Seger played was supposed to represent this controlling force, an observer of the harmonic and choreographic order below, or nothing at all in particular. It doesn’t matter. The movement that she performed, and her movement quality while performing it, was not just a movement exercise. Her portrayal was commanding and inherently sensual, and the choreography required her to appear both exceptionally flexible and yet hard as a rock. Given Ms. O’Donnell’s performing background, and although I noted no ‘Graham contractions’, the role to my eye fit the Graham archetype of a galvanizing woman who was both the visual focal point and the thematic centerpiece of the dance, even where the dance has no ‘theme’.

The dance that followed was Mr. Rioult’s 2003 piece, called “Black Diamond,” which he has said illustrates his choreographic debt to Ms. O’Donnell. This piece, a duet of sorts involving two women in identical black costumes (part solid fabric, part mesh), powerful movement quality, and stunning staging and lighting, certainly reflects Ms. O’Donnell’s influence. But to me it stands on its own as a superb piece of dance theater – even without a discernible plot. The two dancers, Charis Haines and Jane Sato, appear as fraternal twins, sometimes dancing in tandem, sometimes not, sometimes together and sometimes individually, sometimes on raised levels and sometimes on stage, but at all times they moved with extraordinary grace and power – rare performing combinations. Mr. Rioult choreographed the dance to Igor Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertant,” and as Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade” has no visual relationship to Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco,” although they used much of the same Bach compositon, Mr. Rioult’s dance has no visual relationship to Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” which Balanchine created in 1972, except that they both involve two dancers and parts of the same score. Like “Suspension,” it is a mesmerizing and entertaining piece, with an overriding concept that doesn’t so much dominate it as provide it with a stimulating visual and choreographic environment. I don’t know whether the dancers were intended to represent female forces, or forces that just happened to be danced by females, or simply objects with multiple facets that uniquely sparkle as they reflect light, or none of the above, but regardless, I found “Black Diamond” to be not only interesting choreographically, but, like “Suspension,” remarkably sensual.

The second half of the Rioult Dance NY program presented a piece by Martha Graham, and another by Mr. Rioult that reflects Ms. Graham’s influence. Although I admired the dancers’ work enormously, I found this part of the program to be less successful than the other.

The Graham piece, “El Penitente,”was created in 1940 to a score by Louis Horst and sets by Isamu Noguchi, both of whom were Graham’s frequent collaborators. I have found most of the Graham dances I’ve seen, which is a sizeable number, to be compelling and powerful and entertaining, regardless of the subject matter. But “El Penitente” is not one of my favorites. To me, it’s neither fish nor fowl, neither a visual description of a sacred religious practice by a southwestern sect (known as the “Penitentes”), nor a commentary on it. Indeed, by its depiction of a religious practice that seeks purification through personal penitence within the context of the reenactment of New Testament ‘scenes’, and then celebrates the folk tradition that this ritual became, it’s more like a commentary on a commentary. Be that as it may, its structure – a trio of dancer/players portraying Jesus Christ, a penitent, and a Mary Magdalene/Mother figure in a series of episodes culled from a larger ‘original’ ritual act of penitence, is fascinating in its simple yet inventive stagecraft and its dry, southwestern ambiance. To me, it’s a little like a Passion Play performed in the arid plains of Arizona by a trio of commedia dell’arte players. (Just a little - save your emails.)

While I’m not a fan of the piece, the cast was first rate. Jere Hunt’s self-flagellating penitent and Michael S. Phillips’s enigmatic Christ Figure were richly developed, and Ms. Haines was deliciously intriguing, ascetic, and seductive as ‘Mary as Virgin, Magdalen, Mother’, incorporating, in varying degrees, all three qualities into each of her ‘characters’. The three of them performed “El Penitente” as well, if not better, than I’ve previously seen.

In a filmed introduction to “El Penitente” (similar filmed introductions preceded the other pieces on the program), Mr. Rioult emphasized the significance of Ms. Graham’s approach to transitions from scene to scene. Bu t in the next piece on the program, Mr. Rioult’s “Views of the Fleeting World,” I failed to see the connection with Ms. Graham’s work; and although there were individually connected ‘episodes’, as in “El Penitente,” transitions from one to another were more a matter of changing the image projected onto a screen or scrim that spanned the entire backstage wall than the transitional geometric patterns in the Graham piece.

“Views of the Fleeting World,” to J.S. Bach's "The Art of Fugue," is a paean to the natural world and the natural life in it. The piece is divided into seven parts, the first three and last of which (‘Orchard’, ‘Gathering Storm’, and ‘Wild Horses’, and ‘Floating River’), include most members of the cast, while the others are duets. The ensemble work was well executed, but not particularly memorable, but the three duets were all distinctive and skillfully performed by the dancers. I particularly liked Mr. Rioult’s choreography for the final pair, called ‘Moonlight’, danced by Ms. Seger and Brian Flynn, who essentially dance the section, a visualization of ‘love under the moonlight’ (in the grass, on the beach, whatever) on their backs, except when Ms. Seger straddles her partner. It sounds erotic, and it is, but it’s done with taste, and the dancers brought out the passion inherent in the choreography without undue embellishment. The other duets, ‘Dusk’ and ‘Summer Wind’, performed respectively by Marianna Tsartolia and Mr. Phillips, and Ms. Haines and Mr. Hunt, were nicely done as well. ‘Dusk’ is perhaps a prequel to ‘Moonlight’, but with more aggressive movement and somewhat dark undertones, and ‘Summer Wind’ propels the stage relationship more forcefully. Both pairs of dancers executed the serviceable choreography dramatically and expressively, and with no melodramatic excess. The three pairs brought the dance to life, and are indicative of the high level of the company’s dancers.

Since I’d not seen Rioult Dance NY before, I don’t know if this program is representative. But based on what I saw at this performance, I’ll look forward to seeing the company again during its next twenty years.

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